Reading time: ~8 min.

The knife is missing. My chicken with rice and vegetables I eat only with fork and spoon, or just take the hand to help. And I notice that you can cut surprisingly well with a spoon. Knives at the table are supposedly frowned upon in the Philippines because the Spanish colonial rulers once prohibited the people from owning weapons. And such a cutlery knife, one has to admit of course, is a dangerous utensil in case of an uprising.

Whether the story is true or not, the Philippines have a long history of colonial immaturity. Chinese, Arabs, Spaniards and US-Americans have taken over and shaped the country one after the other. The Japanese occupied the islands during World War II. For the recapture the cities were mercilessly bombed by the US Air Force. In the city centre of Cebu there are just three houses left from the time before the war. Whoever ruled this country did so ruthlessly. And after decades of bold electoral fraud and corruption, the country has now placed its hopes in a populist from the sort of Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro: Rodrigo Duterte.

What does life feel like in such a country, what is it like to talk to people there? Professional and private reasons brought me to the Philippines, after – with Japan – I only came to know the rich side of Asia before. Accordingly, I had a tremendous respect for poverty, tropical diseases, and other dangers that one hears about. On the other hand, I was curious about the Filipinos, whom I had met as incredibly helpful and friendly people. And about the diverse country, which in places is as beautiful as elsewhere desolate.


“Maharlika” in Tagalog means dignity, wisdom.


“Maharlika” is what Duterte would like to rename the country on which he has made his mark with great force for two years now. One cannot exactly call his administration dignified and wise. In his ruthlessness he seems like a dazzling mixture of Mussolini, Atatürk and Chuck Norris. He modernises, takes on the powerful church when he advocates contraception or for gays and lesbians. Then again he oppresses newspapers and websites, jokes about rape, spreads scepticism about vaccinations. And above all, he kills drug dealers – or suspected drug dealers – systematically and is proud of it. He plays with the fire of an absolute power. And he gets a lot of encouragement from his compatriots, who after all see him as an efficient doer.

Anyone who travels to the Philippines will notice where there is a lack of state governance everywhere, or better still: of infrastructure geared to the common good. There is no public transport – anyone who wants to go anywhere in Manila has to plan several hours of stop-and-go traffic. Jeepneys – patched-up, open minibuses in private operation – serve as a cheap vehicle. Here, 20 people share a traffic area that in Europe would take up one to two people. Tricycles fill the space in between, with up to seven passengers, and the mopeds, with up to three persons, still in between. At one point the traffic torments itself over a bridge, half of which has collapsed due to a corrupt site manager who saved on steel.

The images, from picturesque to disturbing, are familiar. What the photos do not show is the stench, the noise and the heat. Our sensitivity to the environment is put to a hard test. Not only exhaust fumes impregnate the air, but also sugar cane residues are burned in the fields, garbage or greasy barbecue coal in the streets. Actually the whole country is somehow sooty. Markets smell of uncooled pork and fish. Standing waters form a blistered skin, car tires are breeding grounds for dengue mosquitoes. The sound of horns, machines, air conditioners, karaoke, dogs and roosters – all of this accompanies you everywhere and at any time, day and night.

Building regulations, environmental regulations, fire brigades, medical care, contraception, municipal cleaning, all this is difficult in a country where many people have to get their families through with just a few dollars a day. In which a family member working abroad earns more than his whole extended family together. The rapidly growing population needs paid work and there is work to be done everywhere. The state massively employs security guards in times of need. Sex tourism (with an estimated 800,000 sex workers) is the third largest industry in terms of income. Anyone who sells sneakers for 50 euros a pair in a fancy mall or works in a hotel earns several times as much as a teacher’s or construction worker’s wage.


Labour migration and digitisation as gates to the world


After all, the education system works well. English is – much like in India – the common second language. A schoolgirl in a neat uniform jokes: “We already speak 150 languages in the Philippines, so how can I learn French even on top? And, as in India, comprehensive basic education is an important economic factor. From here, seamen, housemaids and caregivers in great numbers move to rich countries abroad, above all to the USA and the Arab world. Many of the call centres, content moderators and IT helpers of the West are located here. Even ordinary people who hardly ever leave their village have an image of the world, be it from Bollywood movies and American sequels.

I realise how valuable the often shaky Internet really is for people in the emerging countries: as a precious source of information, cultural exchange and entertainment. Even in the dirtiest favela, directly at the garbage dump, I see bright children playing with their smartphones. Her mother feeds six children by cutting copper from old cables. She gets 350 pesos for one kilo – less than seven dollars for a lot of work.

The French NGO Enfants du Mekong is helping her to help herself. We are shown around, I feel as clumsy as Prince Charles in the poorhouse. Ten kindergartens were initiated and are supported for children whose parents work in the garbage. Here they can learn something and later dare to go to school. It smells a little less bad here, the children laugh. You laugh with them and in the same time feel like crying. Some of the young people even get a scholarship for high school. The time for high school has just been extended for two years by the state, which is a financial challenge even for average families.

I note that on sensitive topics such as politics or religion, nobody minds their words very much. A taxi driver tells me frankly his views, we have several hours time. He has already had passengers from ministries, the military or high-ranking police officers telling him what is going on. Everyone can inform themselves about differing points of view through the last big critical medium Rappler and through their own private networks. Violence against women, for example, is a major public issue in which the president does not appear in a favourable light.


No brainwashing, just cheap, simple and straightforward propaganda


So the Philippines are a long way from a totalitarian mind control, as we see it in China. Instead, the public opinion in favour of the president is fed by a completely uncritical glorification in thousands of fake news. They praise his “miracles” in a country that traditionally believes in miracles. More than with Trump, it is hard to imagine what Duterte could possibly do to alienate his supporters. They would probably let him get away with murdering a political opponent right in front of a camera. In any case, he finds it funny to threaten people with it. Populism in it’s most brutal shape.

When I ask a social worker whether the poor she cares for are going to vote, she says: yes – but you never know whom to trust in. The politicians always promise a lot and then nothing changes. In case of doubt she tells them to listen to the election recommendations of the catholic church. The fact that people find Duterte good and – more importantly – let him do what he does, is probably because the tasks are so enormous and hope is urgently needed.

• For a long time, drugs had a strong influence on life in the poor quarters. Well-known drug bosses appeared shamelessly in public and circulated in the high society. That has changed. The prisons are bursting with inmates and whoever survives his arrest can call himself lucky. The resocialization programs are also running at full capacity. While in Europe right wing parties in vain hope for bad crime statistics, here a real and noticeable increase in security is the end that justifies Dutertes brute means in most people’s opinion.

• The centuries-old conflict over the Muslim minority on the southern island of Mindanao was rekindled in the wake of the Syrian war. Radical Muslims swore allegiance to the IS and began an armed uprising in Marawi. With the newly founded caliphate, Duterte made a relatively short process – not in a few days, as grandly announced, but in a few months. To this day, the island is completely under martial law in order to prevent a renewed flare-up of the fighting. In relation to the “war on drugs” (currently up to 20,000 killings) the number of victims was lower here (around 500 killings).

• Or, to name an equally radical but less controversial example: The popular holiday island of Boracay (30,000 inhabitants) was so littered that the president decreed it to be completely closed for several months in 2018. After months of cleaning the environment, residents, business people and even tourists used to partying realised that there was another way. Now the beach is again visible and free of bars, the garbage is collected and from 10 pm it’s quiet. Some see this as a model for sustainable tourism in the Philippines.

So Duterte presents himself again and again as a doer. How effective and successful his government really is can hardly be objectively judged at the moment, as it has long been with Hugo Chavez. The question of economical growth is certainly the decisive one in this poor country – even before corruption, drugs or internal security.


Conclusion: A beautiful country, with real problems


From a tourist point of view, the Philippines is an enchanting, mostly safe and very friendly country. Although the problems are covered up by its inhabitants with a smile, questions of personal security, crime, corruption or public welfare play a large, immediately noticeable role in the very personal lifestyle. One has to admit that a strong pain pressure drives people to take political risks.

It is unforgivable that freedom of the press suffers and that the potential for abuse of power is palpable. It may be a valid argument, that these concerns are a luxury, because people simply have more pressing problems. Our first word attitude must at least be questioned, but without betraying the credo of universal (i.e. equally valid for all) human rights. But the lack of democratic control, pluralism and transparency can also be understood in exactly the same way as the other miseries mentioned: as a lack of healthy, sustainable structures on which prosperity could be based in the long term.

Anyone who is very optimistic hopes that the Philippines will somehow grow from this despotic drastic treatment to a healthier, more open society. The cultural openness and proximity to the USA could favour this. The Philippines is a colourful, often chaotic country with 106 million predominantly young people who are not dictated what to think. But the danger of permanent damage from an increasingly tyrannical ruffian in power is considerable.

It is like sooty air: if you live in it, it seems normal. Life expectancy, however, is different here.



Video recommendation (16 min, in German): Short and differentiated documentary about the social conditions and backgrounds of War against drugs.
I have experienced some of the everyday pictures in this way; in poorer neighbourhoods they are normal life and therefore not over-dramatised. (I found only one scene annoying, there is talk of dead people lying on the street – and one sees a sleeping person.)